The Lakers have struggled these playoffs to find any sort of rhythm. After 8 games they’re 4-4, have a negative scoring margin, and negative efficiency differentials. And while countless words have been devoted to (literal) front line issues like Bynum’s inconsistent effort and Pau’s up and down play, there’s another key Laker that hasn’t been performing up to a suitable standard.
Ramon Sessions first playoff experience hasn’t been very good so far. In 254 minutes of action he’s shooting 36.8% from the field, only made 4 of his 21 three pointers, is 2nd on the team in assists to Kobe (while assisting on fewer than 20% of the baskets while he’s on the floor), and posting a single digit PER (9.8). These numbers represent a staggering decline from his regular season production. Said another way, in these playoffs, he’s shooting worse and has a lower PER than Steve Blake while only dishing out .8 assists more per game than the man that backs him up.
Needless to say, the Lakers need more from Sessions and they need it quickly. Sessions issues seem multi-faceted, however, so improving on his play is going to take a concerted effort.
Throughout his career and in his first 15 games (or so) with the Lakers, Sessions was asked to run a team where he’d be a key factor in every offensive possession. He was given the freedom to push the ball up the floor to seek his own shot, then pull back and run multiple P&R’s in order to try and create off the dribble if there wasn’t a clear alley to the rim. He had the green light to be as aggressive as he saw fit with very few consequences for a quick or poor shot.
When he first came to the Lakers, this approach was a breath of fresh air. His blazing speed and ability to turn the corner in isolation or P&R sets gave the Lakers an added dimension they’d lacked with Fisher or Blake running the offense. Simply put, Sessions was a creator while the Lakers’ other PG’s were initiators.
As the season advanced, though, Sessions was asked to pull back. His teammates started to make comments about playing at a slower tempo to accommodate the pace Gasol and Bynum are most comfortable playing at. He was shifted to the starting lineup and then had more mouths to feed, integrating his on-ball style with Kobe while still running a post-centric offense. More and more he was running half-court sets that didn’t involve P&R’s for himself, but rather sets that asked him to either initiate an action via a pass to Gasol that flowed into him being a screener and a stop up shooter or for him to keep his dribble high while Kobe ran off picks to get free for a catch and shoot jumper or an isolation.
And in the playoffs, it’s been more of the same. Against Denver, controlling the pace and tempo was seen as the Lakers biggest key to controlling the series. Denver didn’t have the size to play with the Lakers bruising style and the Lakers didn’t have the speed or depth to play the Nuggets’ up and down game. So, the Lakers focused on playing a half court game where each possession would be milked while probing for the best possible shot. Getting the ball into the post was the priority. As the Nuggets double teamed the bigs and left the Lakers’ wings open to shoot jumpers, the Lakers didn’t adjust by taking those looks (Sessions included) but rather tried harder to infiltrate the low post via entry passes through crowded windows.
In the process of turning down open jumpers and playing at a slower pace, Sessions’ game seems so far removed from what it was just a couple of months ago he’s nearly unrecognizable as a player. Yes, he’ll still have a nice drive to the rim on a possession or two and a handful of times he’ll run some P&R’s that involve him and a big man in which he tries to penetrate the D and create a good look for himself or teammate, but these aren’t primary sets for the Lakers.
And so far against the Thunder – granted, it’s only been one game – things haven’t changed. Sessions isn’t attacking and creating, he’s barely even probing and feeling out the D. Instead he’s mostly walking the ball up, looking to get the Lakers into their sets, and then either screening for a teammate or drifting around the perimeter where he becomes a spot up shooter. These simply are not Sessions strengths.
At this point, though, turning things around isn’t as clear cut as it may seem. The Lakers could play faster and could incorporate more actions that play to Sessions’ strengths – classic P&R’s and cleared out sides for isolations for starters. But by committing more to Sessions would they be taking away possessions from their big three? Would a change in style that suits Ramon better stand in opposition to what Gasol and Bynum inherently prefer?
The answers to these questions aren’t straight forward. What is, however, is the fact that the Lakers must find a better balance in style that helps Sessions find his game. Because right now he’s not the upgrade the Lakers traded for; he’s not the same player he was in those first weeks of his Laker career. And to beat the Thunder – or just make this series closer than it has been so far – that’s the player they need.